Here are two books that are very different in format (one’s a graphic novel, one not) and approach (one is a memoir, one not). What groups them together in my mind is that they both describe a coming-of-age: a realization of the ways of the world on the part of the narrator. I loved both of them, as different as they were.
To that short list of great memoirs using the format of the graphic novel (Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, David B’s Epileptic, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, and Craig Thompson’s Blankets), we can now add David Small’s Stitches: A Memoir (Norton, 2009). Readers with young children will likely recognize the name David Small as the illustrator of books such as The Gardener and The Library (both in collaboration with his wife, writer Sarah Stewart). But Stitches is a whole new ballgame for Small: it’s a wrenching tale of his 1950s childhood, raised by uncaring, unloving, and indeed, seemingly deliberately malicious parents who never had his best interests in mind. It begins when David was six, and follows him into adulthood, highlighting various events along the way, including an encounter with his mother’s mother (she’s like a wicked grandmother in a particularly grim Grimm fairy tale), his bout of cancer when he was eleven (terribly mishandled by his parents, despite the fact that his father was a physician), his hospital stay at fourteen, and much more. The pictures are all in shades of gray, which speak beautifully to the lack of color and happiness that marked Small’s childhood and adolescence. For me, the stitches of the title refer not to the physical representations of his surgery, but rather the emotional stitching – the mending, if you will – of all the damage he suffered in his early years, and the choice he made to become as unlike his parents and grandmother as possible. Heartbreaking and hopeful, all at the same time – this is a book that both teens and adults can read and appreciate.
Some extraordinary teen fiction has been published recently (E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, for one), and now we have an equally outstanding novel for middle grade readers: Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me (Wendy Lamb Books, 2009). If this doesn’t win the Newbery Award, which is awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, “to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children,” and/or end up high on every critic’s best of the year list, I’ll be shocked. It’s that good. Stead’s book is one of those all-too-few-and-far-between novels that you want to reread as soon as you finish it, because you want to be able to see how the author so successfully accomplished all that she set out to do, which is write a fantasy that feels completely real. In 1979, twelve-year-old Miranda and her best friend Sal are savvy New York kids. They know what’s safe to do, what places to avoid, and how to deal with the strange and bothersome homeless man on the corner of their street. But when Sal gets attacked – for no discernible reason – by one of their classmates, it’s only the first in a series of disturbing events: Miranda’s apartment key – carefully hidden – disappears, and she gets the first of a series of disturbing and mysterious notes, all of which have something to do with future events. This first one includes these lines: “I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own.” Even as Miranda tries to figure out what’s going on, she has to deal with the realities of day-to-life – her crush on her classmate, Colin, her new friendship with Annemarie, and her dislike of Annemarie’s former best friend, Julie. Then there’s helping her mother fulfill her dream of winning on the television show, “The $20,000.00 Pyramid.” All these diverse plot lines come together in a most satisfactory way. Somehow I missed Stead’s glowingly reviewed first novel, First Light, but I intend to remedy that situation shortly. Best of all, in addition to its thought-provoking plot and its realistic depiction of pre-teen experiences, When You Reach Me is a wonderful homage to Madeleine L’Engle’s, A Wrinkle in Time, which is Miranda’s favorite book.